Translated by Sophie Hughes, this powerfully bleak Mexican debut is a taut two-hander that examines motherhood through the prism of a child’s abduction. It’s narrated by two unnamed women in Mexico City. The first – middle-class, married to a man from Spain – tells us that her three-year-old son, Daniel, hasn’t been seen since he went missing in a playground while she was absorbed in her phone: the man she was having an affair with had just texted to break things off. Now unable to get out of bed, she’s dead-eyed with self-loathing, her agony intensified by having to care for her husband’s Catalan niece, Nagore, of whom they took custody after the girl’s father murdered her mother. This is a novel in which violence is endemic... In these locked-down days you may turn to fiction as a source of good cheer. Empty Houses obviously isn’t that. As a portrait of cruelty, it isn’t itself cruel – in fact it’s full of empathy, challengingly so. But it does outline a moral universe devoid of redemption, in which justice is a mirage, and we’re left wondering what the concept even means.
The book is full of thought-provoking questions (“When does a home become a home, and what makes one?”), though Navarro has a frustrating tendency to leave them hanging. Another example of this is in her relationship with her adopted daughter, Nagore, of who she says: “On hearing the word ‘girl’ I was hit by a foul smell, as if the word itself were a living thing.” But we never learn the root of the narrator’s disgust of girlhood, where it came from, why it continued to grow.